Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Favorite Film: COLD COMFORT FARM starring Kate Beckinsale, Rufus Sewell, Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen

I read the book, saw the film, loved both. But today I'm just talking about director John Schlesinger's film starring Kate Beckinsale who, by the way, is sheer perfection as Flora, 'Robert Poste's child.' This 1995 film is just about as good an adaptation of a book as I've ever seen. If you loved the 1932 book by the merciless Stella Gibbons, you will probably love the film from the wonderful animated opening credits forward.

Though the film is not as witty or grimly dour as the book (hilariously so), it still manages to capture a lot of the 'doom' and 'gloom' of the Starkadder's farm in the back of beyond, English countryside. True, the dirt and gloom at the farm is a kind of movie make-believe dirt and gloom, but it works. This is not, after all, a true to life tale of redemption and/or lifestyle reconfiguration. The film is dark fairy tale on the outside, heart of gold on the inside. The book, not so much.

From the very beginning when Flora Poste, newly orphaned and impoverished by vague circumstance, shows up at her friend Mary Smiling's London townhouse - Mary is played by the wonderful Joanne Lumley who doesn't have enough to do in the film, my only complaint - we are instantly smitten. It is the 1930's and the conversation between the two women is just so fetchingly right. Flora and Mary discuss the future and Mary decides she must seek a home with one of her countrified relatives because she is not inclined to earn a living. Her goal is to 'live' life then write a grand novel about it. "When I am 53, I hope to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but in a modern setting." Flora's gift is for 'management'. She loves managing people and setting things to rights. So, where would she fit in best?

One of my favorite little scenes in the film is due purely to film invention and casting. In it, Mary Smiling's butler Sneller, played by the exquisitely wonderful Trevor Baxter, serves her little teacakes while she and Flora sit and ponder Flora's problems. It is in the way the butler operates and the little bits of dialogue in the scene that will charm the pants off you. (Figure of speech.) Lumley makes it clear in a few charming gestures, that she relies completely on her butler. She also collects women's undergarments and appears to have a room devoted to this collection displayed on mannequins, but let's not dwell to much on this little bit of weirdness.

Another fabulous early sequence in the film is when Flora writes to and receives answers from her eccentric relatives (Schlesinger does this in brilliant little vignettes). They are hilarious. Is it just me or does anyone else agree with me that the Brits invented eccentricity? Finally, Flora chooses the Starkadder's at Cold Comfort Farm as the lesser of three evils. "There have always been Starkadder's at Cold Comfort Farm."

The farm itself is delightfully run-down, gloomy, and provincially depressing. The Starkadders, from the funereal widow Eileen Atkins, to hunky farm stud Rufus Sewell, to the religous zealot Ian McKellen and the rest of the oddly assorted lot, including the very creepy and appropriately named Urk, all dance attendance to the strange head of family, Aunt Ada Doom. It is she who controls the purse strings. Played perfectly by Sheila Burrell ("I saw something nasty in the woodshed!"), she is a grumpy old lady who lives upstairs in the ramshackle farmhouse and never leaves her room.

How Robert Poste's child, Flora, moves in and shakes up, not only the farm, but the entire neighborhood, sets everything to rights, figures out happy endings for everyone then takes off (literally) in the end for her own happy ending, is sheer delight, not to mention funny as heck.

Flora is a force of nature.

This is one of my all time favorite films and I urge anyone and everyone who has not seen it to do so immediately. If you, like me, love wry, witty British humor, satire and just plain silliness (but not empty-headed silliness), you will love this film.

The excellent movie site, Internet Movie Data Base has a great set of pix from the film. Shots of the characters in costume, scenes, etc. Found the trailer elsewhere.


  1. I had no idea what this film was about. I've heard of it and the book, but hadn't considered reading it in the past. Your description of the movie does sound entertaining, even the weird underwear collecting thing.

  2. Oh Alyce, you must see this film. I'm positive you will enjoy it. It is everything a film should be. The end will leave you with a big smile on your face. (The books is great too. But see the film first.)

  3. I LOVE this movie and watch it every time I get the chance. Yvette, you're right, it's a real gem.

  4. One of my favourite books & films. The casting is just perfect.

  5. I didn't totally understand this film when I saw it, but I did enjoy it.

    Yes, the British invented eccentricity, especially certain types of eccentrics.

    Your post reminds me to rewatch this movie.

  6. Anonymous: Yes, we agree. A wonderful film. A gem. I was thinking last night about where I'd place it on my Top Ten List, and I think it's number 5 or 6. That's how much I love it.

  7. Lyn: Again, we agree. The casting: you've hit upon it. Everyone plays their part to the hilt. For this all to work everyone has to play their part as if they were serious about it all. THAT'S why it works so well. There's never any wink wink with the audience.

  8. kathy: Try watching it again and see if you don't come away with a different view. There are a few satirical Brit comments which probably made no sense to me as well, but if you 'get' most of it, then that's ok too, I think.

    I love the sound of the music from GONE WITH THE WIND in the background as Seth goes off with the American agent to Hollywood. I could watch that scene over and over and over again. Rufus Sewell is perfect in that moment. Lovely scene.

  9. I agree 100%. I was a bit worried about watching the movie for fear that it wouldn't live up to the book but it was wonderful.

  10. I feel like the odd man out here cause not only have I never heard of the movie, I've never heard of book either. I'm going to have to check this one out as well.

  11. Oh Ryan, you HAVE to see this movie. Do like I did: watch the film first then read the book. Both are excellent. I am a bit of an Anglophile though, so I was pre-disposed to like both.

    I can almost guarantee you will LOVE the film!

  12. Pam: Yes, isn't it wonderful? They were faithful to the book in a 'movie' way. LOVE the casting. An aside: love the fashions Kate Beckinsale wears, so simple and so chic and understated. That floppy little hat she wears in the train. LOVE IT TO PIECES! LOVE the nightclub scene. LOVE Sneller!!! :)

  13. I was going to add: we should ALL have a 'Sneller' in our lives. Think how much less complicated it would all be. :)


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